‘I’m a Certified Personal Trainer, and This Is Why You Aren’t Getting Better at Push-Ups’

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The push-up is one of the hardest workout moves to perfect. It requires great gains in muscle and core strength. And proper form is essential. If you’re not using the right form you may set yourself up for injury (which could delay your progress even further) and slow tangible improvements in your performance over time.

As with many other forms of exercise, push-ups get easier with regular practice. “If you’re just starting out with push-ups, there’s likely a lot of strengthening you need to do in your core, wrists, arms and shoulders, and initially you may feel pain in your wrist, which means you need to work on mobility and stability,” says Steve Stonehouse, NASM CPT, USATF, certified personal trainer and director of education at STRIDE.

“Besides technique, you’ll need to build up strength to maintain an engaged core and straight body while performing push-ups and focus on breathing well,” he says. If you’re not getting better at those push-ups, here are a few sneaky culprits that might be to blame as well as tips for making improvements.

This is the right way to do a push-up:

1. Remember to breathe

Breathing improperly can make push-ups unnecessarily difficult to do, since you’re not giving your body enough fresh oxygen and you’re tightening up your chest (if you’re holding your breath with each rep). So, don’t forget to breathe! “A lack of oxygen fatigues you more quickly since your muscles aren’t getting their much needed oxygen,” says Stonehouse.

2. Maintain proper push-up form

If you are not doing push-ups with the correct form, you could be missing out on getting better at them as well as putting yourself at risk of getting muscle tension or an injury, such as tightness or a spasm in your neck and shoulders. Plus, it’s super uncomfortable and the pain can wreak havoc on other areas of the body by association, like the back.

You must keep the core held in tight, the back flat as if you’re in plank position, and your arms at the same level of your chest–and often this form is commonly done wrong, where the back bends a bit or the arms aren’t bent at the right angle.

“Start with your chest and stomach against the floor with your legs straight behind you and be sure that your arms are at the same level as your chest, bent at a 45-degree angle,” says Stonehouse. Then as you push up with your hands, keep your feet stable and squeeze your quads, glutes and core–then exhale. Keep your body in the plank position for a couple of seconds and then inhale as your body drops back to its starting position.

3. Start with other push-up variations

If you aren’t strong in your arms and shoulders as well as core just yet, taking on the feat of a classic push-up could be too much for you at once. You may want to start with incline push-ups instead or another of the many push-up variations.

“Put your hands on an object such as a box or bench with a 12 inch elevation, since this takes some of the load off your pushup and allows you to build up initial strength,” he says. It also helps you avoid wrist pain, which can happen when you first begin doing push-ups. “Practice 3 sets of 5-10 reps and increase reps after a few days if you’re feeling good,” he says.

4. Slowly increase you reps to build intensity

So, you’re seeing improvement? Rather than just doing your basic push-ups and a larger number of repetitions, perhaps add on more resistance and a challenge by cutting back on reps but increasing intensity–this can increase strength and really hone in on those muscles.

“Cut back on your repetitions and add a 10-20 second countdown, then as you lower yourself, countdown 10-20 seconds, whichever is reasonable for you, then push up to arms extended, and repeat,” says Stonehouse. This will build strength and stability. Start out with three to five reps and work your way up as you get stronger.

You can also bump up the challenge with a box. Put your feet on an elevated object and your hands on the ground. “This puts more emphasis, weight, on your shoulders, arms, and core, and for experienced pushup doers, this will help continue strengthening your anterior chain and upper body muscle groups,” he says.

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